Saturday 26 November 2011

An Off Day in Keswick

Various domestic commitments this morning meant that, for me, there was no chance of going on the hills today.  In any case,  the weather deteriorated rapidly, with the wind rising almost as fast as the heavens were opening.  So I decided to spend the afternoon of my off day in Keswick.

As I headed down the A66, with the windscreen wipers working overtime, I did spare several thoughts for Martin (@Rye1966) and Alan Sloman (@AlanSloman), whose Twitter posts had informed the world, or their followers at least, that they were wild camping somewhere near the summit of Ingleborough or Whernside or some such.  Brave men indeed.  For me the prospect of an hour or so wandering around Keswick seemed like a more enticing prospect.

A few years ago I sneered at people who would wander around a touristy town so near to the hills simply because of a bit of wind and rain.  But no longer.  Age has changed me.  To my mind, Keswick is unbeatable - in England at least. To north, to south, to west the views are magnificent.  It is not often that it can be said that the work and activities of man has improved on that of nature.  But I think in the Lakes this is indeed the case.  To stand at Friar's Crag and look down towards the Jaws of Borrowdale and beyond is enough to have you reaching for the dictionary to check that you are using the word "sublime" correctly.  Sublime, indeed, it is.  Feeling awe and wonder whilst standing there has to be the natural state of mind to anyone with a heart and soul.

As I mooched around George Fisher's, the iconic gear shop located in the former studios of the legendary Abraham brothers, the Victorian photographers and mountaineers, I overheard a conversation between a customer and one of the shop assistants.  The shop assistant, making polite conversation, mentioned that it was a "dreadful day".  "Not at all", said the customer, "it is a wonderful day, it's just that the weather is poor".  What a wonderful perspective on life that man has.

So, an off day in Keswick?  There is rarely an off day in Keswick.  It is at its best on a wet and windy day in late November.  The summer crowds have long gone.  The Christmas and New Year throngs are yet to come.  Forget the weather.  Browse the gear shops at leisure, wander down to the lake to check that water really does run off the ducks' backs (it does) , order a coffee and a toasted tea cake, and just let the stress of the last week evaporate away.  And, above all, keep raising your eyes to the fells that surround the town, and dream awhile, and remember that one day you will again be a free man on the hills*.

* With thanks to Harry Griffin and AH Sidgwick.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Let’s hear it for Alton Towers (even though I have never visited)

The summit of Bowfell, August 2010: almost the scene of a very unpleasant incident!

I often wonder whether I am alone in the completely selfish attitude I hold towards going on to the hills.  I get the impression, on the flimsiest of evidence, from comments in outdoor magazines and from blogs and tweets, that many dedicated and regular hill goers are liberal (with a small letter “L”), and incredibly tolerant of their fellow beings.  I envy this attitude but have not yet mastered it.  But perhaps many others really do share my views?

This is where I admit to my crabby, undemocratic spirit and intolerance.  I love the sense of peace and solitude that I get on many of my days on the hill.  I try to seek out areas that I believe will be empty, especially at weekends and holiday times.  Even in the Lake District there are still quiet places on summer Bank Holidays.  But with the growth in popularity in hillwalking, with better roads and more car ownership, the hills have become far more crowded in the 40 years I have been wandering them.  Solitude is harder to find for us all.  And, thus, I have to admit to a sense of hypocritical intolerance towards my fellow man when I am out doing what I enjoy most.  I am happy to pass the time of day with other solitary walkers, provided it’s not for too long and I can sit and enjoy a snack in silence.  But the presence of chattering groups pushes me to lung bursting, leg aching exertion to put distance between them and me.

It is not just the lack of solitude that inspires my Wainwrightesque attitude, although I have not yet stooped to his depths of turning round and pretending to pee to drive away those attempting polite conversation.  It’s also the erosion, the litter, the reminders of civilisation and all the thoughts that the latter brings to mind, that so disturb the sense of tranquillity.  And in this, I let myself develop an irritation when I should be seeking calm.  Being on the hills should be therapy, not an instigator of angst.

These attitudes, of course, are completely hypocritical and have grown as I have aged.  I cause as much erosion as the next man (although I like to think that competent hill walkers do not do so).  I certainly destroy the solitude for other walkers, who perhaps are viewing me with the same antagonism that I too often view them.  Perhaps the answer and the solution lie within me. I need to develop big T tolerance and not just small L liberalism.

Until I master this I will continue with my unuttered barbs and jibes, always contained, and mostly hidden behind a cheery greeting or snatched conversation.  Such as near the top of Bow Fell on a wet, cloudy day last year.

“Do you know where we are”, I was asked, "my GPS battery is dead”.

“Yes thank you”, I replied.

“Oh” said he.  “Could you show me on the map?”

“No problem – we are about here”.

“Thanks” he said.  How did you know that without a GPS?”

“Because, Dumbo, I have a map, a compass, a brain, and I use all three”.

Of course the last line was not spoken, just thought.  I simply said “Oh, you know….” and smiled and waved the map and went on my way.

Later that day I met another lost group near Esk Hause.

“Is that the path down towards Borrowdale?” I was asked.

They were actually heading towards Eskdale.  It would be a 40 mile taxi ride and a £60 fare if they got it wrong.  The hidden philanthropist in me emerged.  But I was so tempted, oh so tempted, before I heroically sent them off north to Borrowdale not south to Eskdale, and my self righteous sense of goodness exploded within me, and repeatedly returned on future outings.  Until I ended up completely disoriented on Red Screes one awful claggy day this August.

So what’s so great about Alton Towers?  Well, in short, my selfish desire for solitude and the chance for enjoyment mean that I relish every television advert for Alton Towers, every leaflet I see for a National Trust House, every brown road sign pointing the way to a tourist honey pot.  Good luck to them all.  Pull in the crowds.  Pull them in by the million.  Offer all comers a fabulous experience.  I genuinely hope that all who go to them have a wonderful time and repeat their visits.  I hope they find the prospect far more enticing than grinding up a steep fell side.  You see, I do wish my fellow man well.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Love at First Sight?

The photo is a view of a misty Goldscope Valley and Newlands from Dale Head, 2010

Well it wasn't quite love at first sight but pretty much so.  I had been on the occasional day trip to the Lakes whilst at primary school.  But it was my first proper visit in Easter 1973, at the age of 15, when I travelled up to what was then still Cumberland in the back of an army 4 ton truck with the school cadet force.  That is when it really happened for me.

My first memories of the area are hazy.  I recall leaning out of the back of the lorry into the nightime darkness of Borrowdale being violently sick and wanting to die.  At that time I used to get badly travel sick, but this was compounded by the diesel fumes that had been pumped in to the back of the truck through the open canvas all the way up the M6.  I suffered badly and noisily. By the time that we arrived at the Hollows Farm Camp Site I was really ill.  My mate, Rob Strachan, put up the tent for me as I stood around, feeling helpless and not helping, waiting to be able to crawl into a very grungy army issue, sleeping bag.

By the next morning I felt on top of the world.  In those days you could camp right up to the River Derwent at Hollows Farm.  Rob and I cleaned our teeth and washed in the river.  The sun rose over Grange Fell.  I was alive and in love. Never before had I been aware of such beauty.  Never before had the air seemed so clear.  Never had views been so sharp.  Never before had I sensed such contentment.

For the next seven days we walked over the fells, climbed on the crags and canoed on the rivers and lakes.  I was no stranger to hills.  I had walked and walked and walked over the hills of my native Shropshire.  Rob and I would cover long distances each weekend over the Long Mynd, the Stiperstones and the hills of the Welsh Marches.  50 miles in 20 hours was my record. Rob was always faster and stronger.

But the fells were different.  These were to be savoured, to be worshiped, to be loved  from the outset.  Almost 40 years later I can still recall so many of the views I experienced that week, the feeling of freedom, the first visits to the summits that have since become my regular companions, the same summits that can now suffer from our over familiarity, and which can can leave me feeling guilty after a day on them.  Guilty because I sometimes find myself looking forward to the end of the walk rather than savouring every moment of their company.   Guilty becasue I sometimes shun them through lack of will and effort.  Guilty at this lack of constancy from me to them despite all that they have given to me.

So I recall with all my senses the excitement and perfection of the Buttermere, Robinson, Hindscarth, Dale Head route back to Hollows Farm.  The adrenalin and fear as I did my first rock climb, Donkey's Ears on Shepherd's Crag. I still picture the vital foothold on the severe traverse of the final pitch, with my teacher, Ernie Goddard, guiding me to it with calm instructions from his relaxed stance a few feet away; I could still picture that foothold when I led that same pitch 25 years later when I took up climbing far too late in life.   I recall the excitement as a group of us canoed through the reeds of the delta where the River Derwent meets its namesake lake.  And I still recall the joy and sheer teenage exuberance as we later canoed in the glorious early evening sunshine, of that perfect Easter week, on the too shallow Derwent by the camp site.  The place from where, one day, my ashes will disperse and float downstream to settle in the shallow waters of that delta on Derwent Water.